Tuesday's tabling of the District's interstate banking bill is the product of pressure and hard-ball politics in the District Building and panic in the boardrooms of a few D.C. banks.
The net result of those factors could strengthen already unfavorable impressions about the District's ability to manage complex political and business matters. Tuesday's fiasco is instructive for anyone seeking a clue to the business climate in the District.
The more critical concern among D.C. bankers at this stage, however, is that postponement of any further action on the measure could jeopardize merger plans involving local banks.
"Opportunities can be missed" as a result of the decision to delay passage of the bill, the president of a D.C. bank complained Wednesday.
"To delay passage of the bill would be to place D.C. banks at a competitive disadvantage because Maryland and Virginia have already passed interstate banking bills," another District bank executive reminded.
So have several other states in the so-called Southeast banking region, in which D.C., Maryland and Virginia banks would be free to cross state lines under reciprocal agreements.
Passage of a bill in the District was considered a lock until panic and pressure prevailed this week. The bill, after all, had been approved unanimously by the D.C. City Council on first reading. Its chief sponsor, Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), chairman of the Housing and Economic Development Committee was confident she had the votes to override a threatened veto by the mayor. The D.C. Bankers Association was unwavering in its support of the bill as written. And with only minor differences, the measure is comparable to regional interstate banking laws that became effective in Maryland and Virginia this month.
Only minutes before the council was to have considered the measure on second reading Tuesday, however, Jarvis postponed further action until after the summer recess. So, why the last-minute reversal?
Jarvis says she withdrew the bill from the agenda because some D.C. bankers called at "the 12th hour" to say that "they didn't feel as strongly as they had before about a trigger" provision that would open the District to national interstate banking in two years.
The bill had no such provision because local bankers have consistently opposed a trigger, maintaining that regional institutions aren't yet strong enough to compete in a national interstate banking environment.
"It's very unusual for a legislator to take a stronger position in favor of constituents than they are willing to take," Jarvis lamented.
Now, she says, the ball is in the bankers' court. But that doesn't square with the position of the D.C. Bankers Association, whose president is Michael F. Ryan. "We're disappointed. We fully expected that with an 11-to-0 vote on first reading, the bill would have passed on second reading," Ryan noted.
But that was before it became apparent that Mayor Marion Barry was determined to push through a series of amendments to the original bill. The mayor not only wants a bill with a two-year trigger but also has stepped up the pressure to wrest oversight authority from the council. Moreover, the administration seeks a bill that would establish a banking commission for the first time in the District.
Although the mayor initially sent a banking bill to the council in January, rovisions calling for a trigger and a banking commission weren't formally presented by the administration until one day before the council considered the interstate bill on first reading June 25.
Jarvis agreed to hold public hearings on separate bills after the interstate banking bill had been passed. On first reading, the council obviously agreed with bankers that early passage of the interstate banking bill in its present form was critical. Rumors of possible shifts in position notwithstanding, approval on second reading seemed assured.
But as the council prepared to meet last Tuesday, banking sources confided, a few bankers became spooked by the mayor's threat of a veto. And because of fears that a veto might ruin imminent interstate mergers, some bankers pushed the panic button to Jarvis' office, industry sources said.
In the final analysis, the jurisdictional dispute in the District building and the threat of a veto goes much further than regional interstate banking. Citicorp and other money-center giants want a two-year trigger and have been lobbying heavily for one at the District Building, where the line has been: "Consider what we could do for the local economy."
The Barry administration is convinced that funds for major economic development can come only from big money-center banks. "If you look at most of the major projects in this town, the money comes from the money-center banks," declared Pauline Schneider, the District's director of intergovernmental relations. In the meantime, Citicorp has been touting the District as a potential major financial center. So have the mayor and his aides.